Last week, with less than two weeks to spare before the school year begins, New York State United Teachers upset the apple cart by calling on the state to update school reopening guidelines to make mandatory the wearing of masks at all times indoors during the school day, except for appropriate break periods and in cases of medical accommodation.
That eleventh-hour request was a shocker to health officials, school leaders and parents.
It wasn’t to me. I was more shocked that the Department of Health and individual districts hadn’t already gone down that path weeks ago. Continuous mask use is an appropriate control in a variety of settings.
When I re-opened my company during a period of essential manufacturing in May, there really weren’t any detailed guidelines available to businesses. Those multi-page plans produced by the state were still weeks away. So, heading into re-opening I spent hours, days and weeks pondering the wide variety of potential exposures in the workplace and I made my own plans to keep COVID at bay.
Paramount in my strategy was the constant use of masks. At the time, as now, the state and federal suggestions were to wear masks whenever social distancing is not possible. But, that’s just a guideline. As with every health and safety standard you have to be better than the minimum. You have to know your people and processes and adjust accordingly.
I took it one step further because social distancing can change at a moment’s notice in a manufacturing environment. An inspector or technician could pass through or enter a coworker’s workstation. I thought it would be too risky to assume that everyone would remember to raise their masks in such situations, especially when they were in the middle of doing their jobs.
I also understood that human beings are social creatures -- after weeks of being away from friends it was certain everyone would excitedly want to chat or forget that they weren’t at home where masks were never worn. Could I count on them to remember to put the mask up when socializing? Probably not.
Those reasons – and more – made all-day mask use an easy sell for me.
So, if I expected adults to not be mask compliant under part-time use of the personal protective equipment, how are we as a society thinking children would do any better?
These students aren’t factory workers who come from a world in which they live and breathe safety protocols (lockout/tag-out, authorized and trained use of equipment, material safety sheets)…they are kids who have to be told -- and scolded -- about safety often at home and in school (don’t climb that, don’t touch this, don’t run, look both ways). Given their narrow and growing understanding of personal and collective safety it’s asking way too much for them to understand the nuances of social distancing and when masks go up and when they come down.
And, for reasons very similar to my workplace, kids should be wearing masks at all time.
Like the factory floor, classrooms aren’t truly static, though they may appear to be. They are flowing. Students are working on projects. They work together. Children walk through others’ space en route to the bathroom, board, pencil sharpener, and more. You can’t expect them all to react and outfit themselves whenever social distancing collapses.
Just like adults, children and teens are social creatures, too. Any parent can attest that they are more social than we are. They want and need to talk. They want to engage in playful behavior, maybe even a little roughhousing. They want undivided attention, so they get in others’ personal space. They are excitable and excited. In the urge to interact, remembering to activate a face covering is the furthest thing from their mind.
And, we have to remember they’re not us when it comes to hygiene – they’re a bunch of “snot-nosed kids”. There’s a reason why schools are breeding grounds for cold and flu. Many youngsters don’t have a firm understanding of covering their mouths when sneezing or couching. In an enclosed classroom you don’t want unprotected mouths and noses projecting germs into the air. Cover their faces at all times and you minimize COVID…and those other ailments which, in “normal” times are bothersome enough but in today’s world would initiate a litany of COVID tests and protocols due to their similar symptoms.
Take it from someone who works in a masked world and wears one 10 to 11 hours a day: It’s not torture. Even my coworkers in the factory have no qualms about it in a hot, fast-paced environment. You quickly get used to wearing one. It doesn’t hurt you. It helps you and, just as importantly, it helps others.
So, let’s listen to the teachers union. Kids, teachers and staff all need – and deserve -- to be kept safe and healthy...wearing a masks is, undoubtedly, the simplest, cheapest and most-effective protective means to ensure that and keep COVID at bay.
From the 31 August 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News